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Tobias Harris Isn’t The Problem For The Sixers; His Contract Is

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at January 5, 2022

In a vacuum, Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris is a perfectly fine NBA player. He was a fringe All-Star last year, and he’s averaging 18.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and a career-high 3.9 assists this season.

The problem for the Sixers is that the NBA isn’t a vacuum. It’s a league with a fixed salary cap, and Harris’ five-year, $180 million contract makes it difficult for them to build a championship-caliber supporting cast around All-Star center Joel Embiid.

A contract of that size comes with enormous expectations, as Harris has learned the hard way ever since signing it. During Monday’s game against the Houston Rockets, that tension reached a boiling point.

Sixers fans began booing Harris during a rough stretch in the second quarter, and he gestured to goad on even more jeers. Later in the game, he appeared to shout “don’t f—king clap” to the crowd after he knocked down a shot.

Acting head coach Dan Burke, who is filling in for Doc Rivers until he returns from the league’s health and safety protocols, told reporters after the game that the topic came up in the locker room at halftime.

“He’s maybe since I’ve been here one of the surprise guys for me, how professional he is, what a genuine good guy he is,” Burke said of Harris. “He really leads by example, not very vocal. So when I saw him raise his hands when they were booing—we talked about it at halftime, the only thing that matters is who’s in that locker room.”

Harris got off to a hot start this season, but he’s been far more inconsistent since returning from Covid-19 in mid-November. Following the Sixers’ Dec. 15 loss to the Miami Heat, he hinted that his recovery from Covid-19 might still be affecting him on the court.

“Fans and people watching, nobody cares,” he told reporters. “… But there are guys who have had Covid. Like, we do have those conversations, like, ‘How do you feel? How did your wind feel out there? Or yesterday, you had some chest pain.’ Regular-type conversations throughout the night. And like, I didn’t know what that was. But those things, they’re real.”

Ben Simmons’ ongoing absence from the Sixers isn’t helping Harris, either.

Simmons assisted on 97 of Harris’ 473 made baskets last year, while no other teammate assisted on more than 30.  As Rich Hofmann of The Athletic noted Tuesday, “Harris’ transition frequency is down from 18 percent of his offense in 2020-21 to 13.3 percent this season, and it’s fair to think that Simmons had something to do with that success.”

Regardless, Harris’ recent struggles have made him a lightning rod for criticism. That’s mostly because of the expectations that come with his contract.

Harris is the NBA’s 13th-highest-paid player this season, and the 12 players ahead of him have all been selected to at least five All-Star teams. Harris came close last year, but he’s never been an All-Star even once.

During the first year of his new deal, Harris’ contract made him the scapegoat for a fatally flawed roster. After team president Daryl Morey overhauled that dysfunctional starting five in the 2020 offseason by flipping Al Horford and Josh Richardson for Danny Green and Seth Curry, respectively, Harris shot a career-best 51.2 percent overall and 39.4 percent from deep last year.

This season, his efficiency has plummeted. He’s shooting a career-worst 45.0 percent overall and only 28.7 percent from three-point range, his worst mark since the 2013-14 season.

When Rivers took over as the Sixers’ head coach last year, he demanded quick decision-making from Harris.

“I told him that I saw him dribbling way too much [last year],” Rivers said. “Tobias is so darn skilled going downhill left and right, and we need to get back to taking advantage of that.”

Harris blamed the team’s spacing issues for that tendency to overdribble, saying it put him “in those positions to try to find something to create.” The additions of Curry and Green during the 2020 offseason put him in a role for which he was much better suited.

This season, Harris has relapsed into many of the same tendencies that plagued him in 2019-20. Although Curry and Green remain and second-year guard Tyrese Maxey is in the midst of a breakout campaign, Simmons’ ongoing absence has forced Harris and the rest of the Sixers into absorbing more shot-creation responsibilities.

Even if the Sixers do eventually convince Simmons to return or flip him for a table-setter ahead of the Feb. 10 trade deadline, Harris likely won’t ever live up to his contract. He isn’t going to develop into a perennial All-Star or a Most Improved Player candidate at the age of 29. He’ll be in that next tier of players: fringe All-Stars in a good year, a solid or high-level starter otherwise.

That’s who Harris always has been. It isn’t his fault that the Sixers overpaid him. They traded for him in February 2019 knowing that he’d become a free agent in five months’ time. They were pot-committed to an overpay as soon as they made that trade.

There isn’t a quick-fix solution to this problem, either. The Sixers might be able to trade Harris, but they aren’t likely to find a deal that makes them substantially better. A Harris-for-John Wall swap might be the realistic best-case scenario, but that would leave them woefully thin at forward until they made other moves.

At this point, the Sixers’ best hope is figuring out how to coax the 2020-21 version of Harris back out. It might entail reducing his self-creation responsibilities and using him more as a catch-and-shoot threat. Then again, he’s knocking down only 26.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts this season, a marked decline from the 43.2 percent he shot on such looks last year.

If Harris wasn’t on such an enormous contract, the Sixers would be far more able to entertain trades involving him. Harrison Barnes and Jerami Grant figure to be two of the hotter commodities leading up to the trade deadline, but they’re each earning roughly 60 percent of what Harris is this season.

If Harris were earning roughly $20 million per season, his performance would be right in line with the size of his contract. Instead, the Sixers overpaid him in the hope that he’d become a substantially better player as he reached his prime rather than plateau.

This season, they’re getting the plateaued version of Harris. And with no trade likely to be on the horizon, they’ll need to figure out ways to maximize his effectiveness until they resolve the Simmons situation.

“I think he presses so hard on himself,” Burke told reporters Monday. “And he’s got to understand, Doc has so much confidence in him, and we all do. And it was good, we pulled together and Joel (Embiid) was saying, ‘Call this play for Tobias, call that play for him.’ I saw teammates lifting him up. And if we have that every night, no matter what’s going on, we’re going to keep growing and going in the right direction.”

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

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